Sunday, May 25, 2008

A Professor's Accurate Statement on Invisible Hands

Robert H. Frank writes in today’s (25 May) New York Times, “The Invisible Hand is Shaking’.

Now before I comment on his article, note that Professor Robert Frank is an economist at the Johnson School of Management at Cornell University, which means he will have more regular contact with senior managers and business executives than is the norm for those solely confined to teaching neoclassical economic theory to undergraduates with limited work experience and barely no managerial experience, and to tutoring post-graduates, whose fraternisation with research texts and data sets is legendary, unlike many of the professors of economics in academe, whose familiarity with Adam Smith’s writings are fragmentary and their business experience somewhat limited to the theorems of the imaginary world they work in which is captured in mathematics.

There seems to be a difference between those who have read for themselves Wealth Of Nations (and Moral Sentiments) by the Adam Smith who was born in Kirkcaldy, and who have met and mixed with the people who make business decisions in the real world, and those who haven’t read his books for themselves – they believe in their tutors’ versions of the ‘Chicago Adam Smith’ – which confines their dexterous competence to the movement of their imaginary ‘wooden pieces’ on the imaginary ‘chess board’ of their theories of their imaginary economy (see: TMS VI.ii.2.14-18: pp 232-34).

So read what Robert H. Frank says about the misuse of the metaphor of an invisible hand (it’s music to my ears’…):

ADAM SMITH’S modern disciples are far more enthusiastic about his celebrated invisible-hand idea than he ever was. In their account, Smith’s assertion was that purely selfish individuals are led by an invisible hand to produce the greatest good for all. Yet Smith himself was under no such illusion.
On the contrary, the relevant quotation from his “Wealth of Nations,” which describes a profit-seeking business owner, is far more circumspect. It says that this owner “is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.” It continues: “Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it

In short, Smith understood that the invisible hand is often benign, but not always. This understanding has important implications for economic policy in general, and for the recent presidential campaign dust-up about gasoline taxes in particular.

If you believe, with Smith’s modern disciples, that unfettered pursuit of self-interest always promotes society’s interests, you probably view all taxes as a regrettable evil — necessary to pay for roads and national security, but also an unwelcome drag on economic efficiency. The problem, according to this view, is that taxes distort the price signals through which the invisible hand guides resources to their best destinations

Smith’s more nuanced position supports a different view of taxes. When market prices convey accurate signals of cost and value, the invisible hand promotes the common good. But prices often diverge from cost and value and, in those cases, taxes can actually help steer resources toward more highly valued uses.

It’s helpful to look more closely at why the invisible hand works so well in many ordinary markets. Consider the market for potatoes: in it, production and consumption are determined by millions of separate cost-benefit calculations. Profit-seeking sellers are willing to offer an additional pound of potatoes for sale whenever the benefit of doing so — as measured by what buyers are willing to pay — is enough to cover the cost of production.

The market reaches equilibrium when the cost of producing the last pound is exactly equal to its value. If the costs incurred directly by sellers are the only relevant costs of expanding potato production, and if the benefits to potato buyers are the only relevant benefits, the invisible hand gets things just right.

The production and consumption of many other goods, however, generate costs or benefits that fall on people besides buyers and sellers. Producing an extra gallon of gasoline, for example, generates not just additional costs to producers, but also pollution costs that fall on others. As before, market forces cause production to expand until the seller’s direct cost for the last unit sold is exactly the value of that unit to the buyer. But because each gallon of gasoline also generates external pollution costs, the total cost of that last gallon produced is higher than its value to consumers.

The upshot is that gasoline consumption is inefficiently high. Suppose that pollution costs are $2 for the last gallon consumed, but that its $4 price at the pump is just enough to cover its direct production costs. Reducing production and consumption by a gallon would then cause consumers to lose fuel that they value at $4, which would be exactly offset by the $4 in reduced production costs. The $2 in reduced pollution costs would thus be a net gain for society.

That simple example captures the classic breakdown in the invisible hand when a product’s market price doesn’t reflect all its relevant social costs and benefits. In such cases, the simplest solution is to discourage consumption by taxing it.”

“… THAT the invisible hand often breaks down is actually good news. After all, we need to tax something to pay for public services. By taxing forms of consumption that generate negative side effects, we could not only generate enough revenue to eliminate budget deficits, but also help steer resources toward their most highly valued uses

I like the way Professor Frank draws attention to the resticted application of the metaphor to decisions made in pursuit of their self-interest being 'benign'. This concurs with Adam Smith's examples in Books I and II of Wealth Of Nations that show about 50 occasions where the outcome of self-interested actions were well short of being benign in their effects on society.

Moreover, he does not even mention the invisible hand in Books I and II (which cover the workings of markets in detail). In fact, Adam Smith's only reference to an invisible hand is in Book IV and had nothing to with markets.



Post a Comment

<< Home